REVIEW | CYBERPUNK ATTEMPTS EVERYTHING AND ACHIEVES NOTHING
This article is spoiler-free.
In the ultimate blow to capitalism, I purchased Cyberpunk 2077 the day after Sony pulled the game from their PlayStation Store. I watched only one review of the franchise before its release, if only to giggle about the fact that CD Projekt Red didn't allow any early-access reviewers to use their own footage. I was truly looking forward to the game-ruining crashes, bugs and graphical issues that had since caused the game to be branded as unplayable by both fans and sponsors alike - but much to my disappointment, the game plays as smooth as butter on Stadia. There is plenty of proof that PC and console players received the rough end of the stick, but my experience of the game has been no more or less frustrating than say, a published, pre-Fallout 76 Bethesda game. I have in my 50 hours of play encountered only one game-halting bug (the quick fix of which was to run head-first at a wall before punching an NPC in the face), and only a dozen or so graphical issues. In an act of genuine bitterness, I took it upon myself to play Skyrim on the Nintendo Switch for as many hours as it took to encounter the same number of glitches I had experienced during my first five on Cyberpunk. This, much to my surprise (or perhaps not), took only about two and a half hours (thanks, Todd!). While it wasn’t perfect, Stadia had basically escaped the unplayability curse - which makes my experience all the more disappointing.
I say "disappointing" not because I was looking for an excuse to dislike the game, but more so because I was hoping that this was simply a repeat of the great No Man’s Sky debacle. I had - and still have - great faith in CDPR as a game studio, just as many had faith in Hello Games when they released the over-hyped, under-developed No Man’s Sky. Unfortunately, despite the forgiveness that glitches and pre-release razzmatazz may provide, Cyberpunk simply doesn't offer enough for there to be a redemption arc on the horizon.
No Man’s Sky set a particular precedent for the release of triple A games. Cynics might say it simply lowered the bar and made big companies feel like they can get away with releasing half-finished projects and patching them to completion later on (looking at you, my darling Bethesda), but the truth is slightly more complex. The 2016 release of the genuinely buggy, barren game and its subsequently reception was caused by a rushed development schedule and sky-high expectations. The ramifications of this were then hoisted onto the shoulders of an entirely underprepared company and amplified by the dubious marketing techniques of head developer Sean Murray (aka, being a little too over-excited about the project in interviews and not having a proper PR team). The entire thing resulted in an unfinished game and a forgivably enraged fanbase - but despite it all, and given enough time away from the pressures of Big Gaming Inc©, No Man’s Sky eventually emerged from its corporatised cocoon as the critically-acclaimed masterpiece that continues to dominate charts to this day. The Internet Historian details the rise and fall (and ultimate triumph) of the project in his 2019 video essay The Engoodering of No Man’s Sky and I admit I expected Cyberpunk 2077 to follow much the same trajectory. It would make sense, after all: the internets’ adoration for Keanu Reeves, the fierce marketing campaigns led by both Sony and Microsoft, the already-established fanbase of both the Cyberpunk tabletop game and The Witcher console series, the endless memes and think-pieces… it all fit the formula for a game that was unplayable at release, yet, once the looming figure of Big Gaming Inc had stopped breathing down its neck, would eventually be patched into something beautiful.
It follows that the lavish praise for the buggy December release relied quite heavily on the fact that most players were, I believe, willing to accept bugs if it meant the establishment of a perfect villain-become-hero project: after all, expectations were high. Development was rushed. Sony and Microsoft had set unrealistic goals for development both in terms of schedule and quality, and fans had been waiting for eight whole years for something that was bound to be too good to be true. Yes, the rushed release would have ruined early players enjoyment; but at least the foundations for a masterpiece would be there.
Sadly, despite the heavily-rushed schedule, release-day bugs and high expectations Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t actually have the foundations for anything that is beyond simply satisfactory. I re-iterate that I was fortunate enough to encounter very few bugs and that I really didn’t believe the hype in the first place (Keanu Reeves looks too much like my father for me to have fallen for the 2019 cultism that emerged after the breathtaking stunt). I say this because I think it is important to establish that this review takes place away from criticisms of both glitches and prior expectations: this is a game that, if I had been presented with blind, I likely would have stopped playing within the first ten hours.
Cyberpunk 2077’s first and biggest issue is the pacing. It takes aeons to feel like you’re actually doing something. This isn’t something to be patched out, it’s a fundamental flaw in the structure of the story and, consequently, how the player interacts with its world. The writing isn’t bad persay, but the fact that the “tutorial” section of the game takes at least 5 hours to complete is frankly unforgivable. Separated into various prologues, act and interludes, the tutorial serves the purpose of establishing the reasons behind the conundrum that main character V finds themselves in. These reasons are in and of themselves numerous and complicated, and so it isn't until Act 2 - about five hours into the game - that the full scope of Night City actually becomes available to the player. Until then, V is forced to interact with dozens of countless characters, areas and cutscenes that all ultimately turn out to have no use other than establishing premise and teaching you various gameplay mechanics. You can technically go out and do things that aren’t related to the main quest during this time, and you may well be tempted to because so much of it is so boring, but you are severely restricted both by the percentage of the map you can actually visit (the area you start in is conveniently placed on lockdown) and the missions available to you (many of them simply are even accessible until the second act starts).
Yet even after the bogglingly long and dull tutorial, the very structure of both the main and side quests leaves much to desire. The side-quests in particular remind me of those found in various Assassins Creed games, in that they exist more as a checklist than as a genuine motivation to explore the massive expanse laid out before you. The vehicle acquisition quests in particular act as a representation of this failure: as pointed out by MBMBAM’s Travis McElroy, the best car in the game is just hanging out in a box in a cave, so spending any amount of time or money trying to get any of the other cars is only appealing to completionists (and possibly the friends and family of the poor designers that clearly spent hours of their lives modelling vehicles that only 10% of players are interested in seeing). In fact, the motivation to complete the majority of what the game offers can be categorised as follows: completionism, romance, ending choice, and loot. There are a few vaguely exciting cases where all four of these categories overlap and interact, but anything that isn’t main-quest will always fall into at least one or two of these groups. This is by no means something that is exclusive to Cyberpunk 2077, and the more cynical among us might go as far as to say that any mission from any RPGs falls into one (or at least a variant) of each of these categories. However, the fact that the side-quests are so uncompelling that the main mission actively stops itself from progressing until a certain amount of in-game or real life time has passed (usually in the form of “wait for X to do Y”) speaks for itself. If a players’ only options towards progress are to either leave their console on for an hour while they do the dishes or to zoom around Night City around looking for tarot cards, then of course they’re going to look for the tarot cards - despite having no story-driven interest in them before. Players shouldn’t have to be blackmailed by boredom into interacting with the world that they’ve been placed in.
However, even once the game has dragged you kicking and screaming into the hundredth fetch-quest or shoot-em-up, the actual combat is only fun for a couple of hours. The levelling and damage system is oddly similar to that of Nintendo’s Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in that the player must self-impose certain restrictions when it comes to both armour and weapon choice in order to enjoy themselves and keep combat fresh. Joseph Anderson has a slightly more succinct analysis of where and why this sort of levelling system fails, but it essentially boils down to the following: missions and their associated enemies are placed on a classing system that ranges from very easy to suicidal. As is to be expected, the higher your level the lower risk certain missions are, although even the very easy missions can present a challenge when you’re less than 5 levels deep unless you’re favouring stealth (another reason the supposedly “open-world” aspect of the tutorial is so frustratingly performative). In theory, the system is sound and avoids the problem faced by open-world games like Fallout 3, which allows the player to travel anywhere in the map and be faced with feasibly defeatable enemies, no matter if it’s a pack of wild dogs or a colony of deathclaws. This is unrealistic and has, understandably, garnered plenty of criticism over the years for ruining any kind of feeling of risk when exploring open worlds. Both Breath of the Wild and Cyberberpunk 2077’s levelling and combat are designed to rectify this situation, while also adding a feeling of danger when undertaking a mission marked as being above ones level and encouraging players to really weigh the pros and cons of entering any sort of combat above their pay grade. As noted, it’s a sound idea… in theory.
As in Breath of the Wild, the reality results in combat far, far too easily broken. Both games will suddenly reach a natural point - in Cyberpunk, between the 25th and 30th level - where, unless you specifically stay away from the vast majority of weapons, perk points and fighting styles, combat becomes a monotonous, repetitive slog. Armour actively negates the numerical DPS of enemies' weapons, rather than a percentage of it: this means that, at a certain level, some enemies aren’t even able to do their base level damage while others in the same area or mission are able to rip you to shreds with a couple of bullets. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of enemies in an area having vastly differing abilities or damage output, and in fact can make for a much more exciting and varied experience. However, if I can be one-shotted by 90% of enemies in an area only for that number to drop to 0 if V pops on a slightly snazzier jacket that happens to have an extra 10 points of protection, there’s a problem.
Weapons are equally frustrating: as the game progresses, and you use your hard-earned cash and perk points towards ripperdoc upgrades or devastating combat advantages, guns will either start to do so much damage or be so good at aiming automatically that putting any mechanical effort into gunmanship becomes unnecessary. Ripperdoc upgrades also provide finishing moves so powerful yet so mundane that every battle becomes a simple case of approach, murder, repeat. The stealth system suffers almost as badly, especially once you throw perks and cyberware upgrades into the mix: the best way to play the game quickly becomes to crouch out of sight and use techno-telekinesis to roast your enemies circuits to a crisp, wait for your RAM to reload, and repeat - no matter weather you spec in melee or tech. Actively favouring lower-rate armour, weaker or non-automatic/non-smart weapons and abstaining from certain ripperdoc upgrades is an easy fix that keeps combat fun and challenging, but a player shouldn’t have to limit their experience of what a game has to offer in order to remain engaged.
It’s almost a joke at this point for any game reviewer to resort to Fallout: New Vegas’s as a benchmark for organic quest engagement generation in RPGs, but it’s a popular one for a reason. HHbomberguy expands more upon the ways in which FO:NV effectively guides players into taking a story-driven interest in its non-main quest missions, and it’s something sorely lacking in Cyberpunk. This is a huge shame, because among the dozens of fetch quests and beat-em-ups, there are some genuinely gorgeous stories to be told. There was one particular quest that I avoided on my first playthrough because it was obtained through a character I didn’t particularly like: I figured that, like the rest of the quests said character assigned, it would be yet another mindless, mundane search-and-destroy mission. When I finally got around to it on my second playthrough, I discovered one of the most profound and thought-provoking quest lines I have encountered in any video game ever, yet alone Cyberpunk. The quest was an earnest reminder of just how much of an effective and powerful tool video games can be at storytelling - and I had skipped it, because I had no reason to believe it would not be just as mindless and mundane as all the others. As I said, a true shame.
Dialogue, too, suffers from the rather unique combination of being too much and not enough. I understand that it takes immense time and effort to record a fully-voiced game. However, when such an effort is willing to be undertaken, frustration is only added when it turns out that most dialogue choices really don’t matter: at best, most choices serve divulge a little extra information and at worst simply don’t affect the response at all. A certain amount of railroading is inevitable in a game of this scope and there are still choices that do clearly affect how the story unfolds and how various characters interact with your own, but it is still incredibly hit and miss. It’s also nowhere near as bad as other attempts at fully voice-acted player characters from previous RPGs — Fallout 4’s yes, no, sarcastic, and psychopath options comes to mind — but I did find myself reloading a couple of times when the brief descriptions of my characters lines didn’t match up with what had I wanted them to say at all. Frustration was only furthered when it turned out that the choice didn’t matter anyway and that no matter which position V took, the response and result was the same. I completed two playthroughs and have recently started a third, and was severely disappointed when differing dialogue options, purportedly representing two completely different attitudes, culminated in the same ending despite picking very different responses.
The closest thing that comes to injecting V with any sort of unique personality comes not from the dialogue choices themselves, but rather from which options are unlocked via two other factors. Firstly, a decision made right at the start in which the player chooses what V’s background is, which in turns unlocks certain speech options, and secondly, options unlocked depending on the skills the player has chosen to invest in. Once again, however, these options seem to carry little weight: they are usually always the best choice, or at least the option that lets you skip the most gameplay or cause the least amount of strife. Yet again, optionality is rendered useless. Similar frustration is found with the various endings you are presented with: yes, certain requirements are needed to unlock a few of them, but your choice of endings boils down to a tiered list rather than an organically-unfolding timeline influenced by your choices.
Perhaps even more infuriating than the lack of tailoring offered for V’s personality is the lack of customisation to their body. Certainly, players can tinker around with cyberware to their hearts content, but CDPR somehow deemed it appropriate that in a world where chrome can be injected into bone at the drop of a hat, it should be impossible to get a haircut. This is not an exaggeration: you are left with the same hairstyle, face and body that you picked at the starting screen for the duration of the game. No backsies, no changes. I can only presume that in-game character customisation will be patched in at a later date, because it is unimaginable to me that anyone designing an RPG set in a world where accessible and frequent body modifications are not only canon, but a cornerstone of said worlds society, would think that it could could be excluded. It can be argued that this doesn’t even matter, because third person view is only an option when driving, but I argue this is even more egregious: once again, it's a truly bizarre choice for an RPG to limit the visual elements of roleplay so severely despite aesthetics being such a core component of both story and gameplay. Similarly, it seems unlikely that in a future where you can canonically cyber-customise everything about yourself from the shape of you cornea to the shape of your genitalia that the technology to choose the “gender” of your voice wouldn’t be separated from the pronouns people use to address you by, and yet that’s the case. It seems a huge waste that a setting which canonically welcomes any and all modifications and variations to the gendered body that the traditional binary is still applied to something as arbitrary as voice, and hopefully will be something addressed in future updates.
But can all of Cyberpunk 2077's problems be patched into excellency? Not really. Third person view and in-game character customisation are achievable fixes. Fragile combat, devastatingly dull pacing and unsatisfactory combat and dialogue systems are not. Cyberpunk has attempted everything and excelled at nothing, wasting a wonderfully exciting premise and beautifully-designed environment on a run-of-the-mill, first-year-at-SAE RPG. Again, I say this not because I expected anything else or because my experience was ruined by glitches and bugs, but because I want to drive home the disappointing reality that there simply isn’t even a foundation for something great to be achieved. It serves little to pretend that further updates or even DLCs will do anything else than muddy the already cloudy waters of a game that has drowned in its own ambition.